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Scent Markings May Be Used to Stop Endangered African Wild Dogs from Wandering into Extinction

Throughout history, and all over the world, people have killed wild carnivores to protect their livestock. Now, a relentless expansion of human activities that brings people and their livestock into ever larger areas of former wildlife habitat is rapidly escalating both the threats to carnivore populations and the impact of carnivores on rural people’s liveliehoods. In southern Africa a radically new way to reduce conflict between people and wild carnivores is being developed by the BioBoundary Project of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT, http://www.bpctrust.org/). With funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the BioBoundary Project is using the protection of endangered African wild dogs as a test case of whether wild carnivores can be kept away from livestock by artifical scent-mark boundaries between protected wildlife areas and livestock areas. African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are intensely social super-predators. They live in packs with huge home ranges that extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest of protected areas. When wild dogs cross these boundaries into landscapes that are dominated by humans and livestock they run a gauntlet of shooting, snaring, and poisoning; in most wild dog populations, more dogs are killed by people than by anything else. African wild dogs used to range across 39 sub-Saharan countries but now their numbers have dwindled to fewer than 6,000 and only two populations are large enough to be self-sustaining in the long term. Each African wild dog pack stakes out its territory by soaking patches of soil with the urine of the pack’s alpha pair. The odor of these scent marks tells neighboring packs “This area is occupied, no trespassing.” Identifying the chemicals that send this message is the key to formulating artificial scent marks that can be deployed as BioBoundaries. In the most detailed analysis ever of a wild carnivore’s scent signals, chemical communication specialist Dr. Peter Apps and analytical chemist Dr. Lesego Mmualefe have identified 103 of the organic compounds in African wild dog urine, feces, anal glands, and preputial glands. Working in the BPCT’s Paul G Allen Family Foundation Laboratory for Wildlife Chemistry, in Maun, Botswana, Drs. Apps and Mmualefe used gas chromatography – mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to unravel the complex chemical mixtures in samples from African wild dogs living in and around Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, where BPCT director Dr. John “Tico” McNutt has been studying wild dogs since 1989. The results, published online on November 6, 2012 in the Journal of Chemical Ecology, reveal that the chemicals used by African wild dogs to send social messages are quite different from those used by other members of the dog family. Out of the 103 components that have been identified, 11 have never been found in mammals before, and one of them is a new natural product. Combinations of these are being formulated into synthetic scent marks for testing on free-ranging wild dogs. (Press release provided by Dr. Peter Apps). [Journal of Chemical Ecology article]